How “In the Heights” Finds Itself on the Bluff

Monday, February 17, 2020

In The Heights cast 

How “In the Heights” Finds Itself on the Bluff
by Kellie Toyama 

As theatre kids nation-wide wait in anticipation for the 2008 Tony award-winning musical In The Heights to reach movie theaters this summer, the Theatre Arts Program at LMU is preparing for their production of playwright Lin Manuel Miranda’s first critically-acclaimed show to open on Thursday, Feb 20.

After months of rehearsal for what will no doubt be an entertaining celebration full of joy and talent, examining the space this performance will occupy is still worthwhile. A story set on a corner of Washington Heights, Manhattan, delving into the lives of Latinx immigrants and first-generation college students parallels deeply with the experiences of those in the greater LA area, and in the lives of students here on the Bluff. Ballads about struggling to afford next semester’s tuition will evidently resonate with this audience, and hopefully, students who are first/second-generation immigrants will feel seen with this play being present on campus.

Much of the musical’s political dialogue revolves around the stories of people who suffer from gentrification, and LA residents—Black and Brown communities in particular—are no strangers to this process. Having to constantly witness their neighborhoods “disappear” leads to their extreme displacement, sometimes caused by the expansion of private universities. In portraying stories that are so deeply rooted in cultures of heartache and resilience, there will always be a set of responsibilities to be upheld by cast and crew to re-tell audiences justly. 

As a private university whose student body, at first glance, is significantly white and wealthy, there could have been numerous ill-advised calls that could have led to a show that no longer carries the heart of what was originally intended. But in her second semester here, Dr. Daphnie Sicre, Assitant Professor of Theatre Arts, is directing a production to remain truthful to the musical’s empowering and comforting spirit, both onstage and off. 

With an extensive background in Latinx and Afro-Latinx theatre, Dr. Sicre has actively sought out ways to bring more people of color into the audition room.

“I knew that coming here and [directing this] would be a challenge,” she expressed over the phone with me, “but at the same time—the students of color are here at the university. They’re here and they’re present.”

Casting was a very conscious process for Dr. Sicre as a director, projecting the need for sign-ups in classes and through organizations, expanding the call beyond theatre majors, and in some cases even stopping people who crossed her path on the street, asking them to come out and audition. Every action was to create an audition room that invites students of color into a creative space where they are not just welcomed, but celebrated. 

“We cast twenty-five students, and out of those twenty-five, twenty-three are students of color. Which is pretty impressive, especially at a university where that’s not who you usually see [on stage].” 

Further, Dr. Sicre wants to remind audiences that Latinx, as an ethnicity, can encompass people of all races, and adds, “There’s one perception of what a Latino is supposed to look like, which is not necessarily true. And part of telling this story is telling a story of multiple Latinos.” 

She reiterates how her cast will reflect the multiplicities of Latinx people worldwide: “For me, it was really important to have students of multiple races to be able to represent what Latinx means. At the end of the day, Lin Manuel Miranda has written a quintessentially American musical, just with Latino characters.” 

When stories like this are being re-told from a place of privilege (in our case, from a private university), decisions must be made with intention and awareness of the broader implications those choices could have.

Mcbride High School in Long Beach (whose student body is predominately Latinx), has received a grant to come and see the production on the 28th, preceded by a workshop with the actors on the 21st for students interested in performing arts, hopefully having an expansive impact on the youth in our extended community. 

In addition to outreach, Dr. Sicre is also involved in other projects on-campus to encourage more diversity in performance spaces, including a club called “Theatre in Color,” (open to students of any major or ethnicity) and the proposal of a curriculum guide in theatre classes that reinforces the importance of representation. 

“I can’t speak to the past, but change is coming,” she reassures me. 

The show will be running from Feb 20-29. 

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